The Mishnah (Hebrew, "Repetition") is part of the Jewish scriptures. It is a recording of the oral tradition of the Pharisee sect, as set forth by Rabbi Judah haNasi around the year A.D. 200. As such, it is the first work of Rabbinic Judaism.
The Mishnah is noteworthy in Rabbinic literature for its depiction of a religious universe in which the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed a century earlier, still retains a central place. Laws concerning the Temple service constitute one of the Mishnah's six divisions. By contrast, the later Talmuds comment only on those part of the Mishnah applicable in post-Temple times.
The Hebrew verb shanah (שנה) literally means 'to repeat [what one was taught] and is used to mean 'to learn'. The term 'Mishna' basically means the entire body of Jewish religious law that was passed down and developed before 200 CE, when it was finally redacted by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (Judah the Prince). He is usually simply referred to as 'Rabbi'.
Rabinical Judaism has always held that the books of the Tanach (aka The Old Testament, the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. Jews point to the text of the Torah, where many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; this they argue means that the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally trasmitted orally, and came to be known as the oral law. However, by the time Judah Ha-Nasi (200 CE) much of this material was edited together into the Mishnah. Over the next four centuries this law underwent discussion and debate in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylon), and the commentaries on the Mishnah from both of these communities eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud.
Halakha or Jewish law and custom thus is not based on a literal reading of the Torah or the rest of the Tanakh, but on the combined oral and written tradition, which includes the Tanakh, Talmud Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) and Talmud Yerushalmi (the Talmud of Jerusalem--something of a misnomer, since it was edited north of Jerusalem--also known as the Talmud of the Land of Israel or the Palestinian Talmud.)
Prior to the time of Rabbi, all Jewish Law was transmitted orally; It was expressly forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law, as any writing would be incomplete and subject to misinterpretation and abuse. However, after great debate, this restriction was lifted when it became apparent that it was the only way to insure that the law could be preserved. To prevent the material from being lost, Rabbi took up the redaction of the Mishna. He did not do this at his own discretion, but rather examined the tradition all the way back to the Great Assembly. Some of tractates preceded him; These he merely supplemented.
The Mishna consists of six orders (sedarim). This explains the traditional name for the Talmud as Shas, which is an abbreviation of shishah sedarim, "six orders". Each of the six orders contains between 7 and 12 tractates, called masekhot. Each masekhot is divided into smaller units called mishnayot.
- First Order: Zeraim ("Seeds"). 11 tractates. It deals with agricultural laws and prayers
- Second Order: Mo'ed ("Festival Days"). 12 tractates. This pertains to the laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals.
- Third Order: Nashim ("Women"). 7 tractates. Concerns marriage and divorce.
- Fourth Order: Neziqin ("Damages"). 10 tractates. Deals with civil and criminal law.
- Fifth Order: Qodashim ("Holy things"). 11 tractates. This involves sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws.
- Sixth order: Toharot ("Purity"). 12 tractates. This pertains to ritual and the laws of family purity.